An Interview with Sarah Ruhl
Written by Victoria Myers
October 12th, 2014
“You should know about me arranging playdates for my daughter,” says Sarah Ruhl as she runs into a friend during the course of our interview. Did you read the previous sentence and think, “Hmm, I don’t know if I’d introduce an interview with a two-time Pulitzer finalist and a Tony nominated playwright by talking about her kids?” Well, to be honest, that’s what we thought. Only Sarah’s thoughts on how we as a society view motherhood, working mothers (and fathers), and the need to put those narratives front and center totally blew our minds. Being a parent is one of the themes of her newest play, The Oldest Boy, which just began previews at Lincoln Center Theater, and in her recently published collection of essays, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. As one of the few contemporary female American playwrights to have had a play on Broadway (In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play), we had plenty of questions for her about structure, the language we use to describe plays, new play development, and much more. Yet, the one theme present in all of the above was children and art.
Your new play, The Oldest Boy, is premiering at Lincoln Center Theater. What inspired you to write this play?
I have three kids and a babysitter who is Tibetan, and she told me a story about friends of hers in Boston who had a child, and the child was recognized as a reincarnated Lama. The parents had to decide whether to send the child back to India to be educated at a monastery. And so I said, “Well, what did they do?” They sent their child to the monastery. They shut down their restaurant in Boston and they left. And I thought about it a lot. I thought about what would happen if it was the same situation, but if it was someone who came to Buddhism later in life and had to make that decision about a child. So it’s about a white American woman who is married to a Tibetan man and has a child who is a reincarnated Lama.
It seems like it might have some interesting things to say about modern day parenting.
I was also really interested in this idea of attachment parenting. Attachment parenting is this theory that if you wear your baby around and you sleep with your baby and you breast-feed for a long time, the baby will be more attached to you. It’s really popular in a lot of circles right now. And one surprising thing, maybe, is the progenitor of attachment parenting is this guy, William Sears, who has ten children and is on the religious right spectrum and whose wife stays home with all the ten children. I practiced attachment parenting with my first daughter, Anna, and then I had twins. It’s almost impossible to do attachment parenting with twins. Some of my questions about attachment parenting were up-ended. I was interested in writing a play about attachment parenting from a mother’s point of view, and also the idea of non-attachment from a Buddhist point of view.
What was it like playing with Eastern influences? Especially in regards to how that might affect theatrical structure?
I’ve always been interested in Eastern structures, from the time I wrote my first play, Passion Play. I was influenced with Passion Play by Noh Drama and circular structure, and also by the idea of the Noh waki, or traveler, who comes and presents the story. So, I think this play was influenced by Noh Drama, but I also think Eurydice was.
And you have another show coming up in the spring too?
I wrote a play called Melancholy Play for 13P. And Todd Almond wrote music for it and we’re doing it at Trinity Rep this spring.
We have limited physical spaces for theatre. Theatres aren’t always that flexible or evocative. How do you think the physical spaces we produce theatre in affects the writing? Is that something you think about?
No, not in the first draft. But I love a black box. I remember a producer once paging through Eurydice and saying, “This is impossible to do. There’s a raining elevator, and in the stage direction it says that he throws her up into the sky.” And I said, “Oh, well, this is all just literary suggestion and it’s all just trafficking in metaphor.” He throws her up into the sky as a gesture. A raining elevator could be a sound cue and a light cue. It could be a child with a bucket pouring water. I’m always intrigued by how you put up the same play in a black box or in a site specific way or with students, and then see it fully produced someplace like Lincoln Center or Second Stage where you get the raining elevator and you get the whole scenic idea in a more expensive way.
We’ve been talking a lot about this idea that, in America, we teach plays like we teach literature and that might not be such a good thing. We talk about it in regards to revivals, but we think it’s an interesting conversation in regards to new work too—that there’s this mindset that there is a “right” answer on the page. What do you think about that?
This is death for the theatre. I really think so. There’s this novelist and poet, Ben Lerner, who’s writing this little book called Why People Hate Poetry. The thesis of it is, partly, that the way poetry is taught in school is that you think there’s a right answer and you think you’re dumb if you don’t know what the right answer is. Rather than theatre or poetry being taught as an irreplaceable experience, it’s taught as a set of interlocking symbols that can be interpreted with one right answer. I think it makes people hate the medium and feel like outsiders. So, I think we have to reorient the development process and the audience response process towards a more experiential, personal process, that takes into account people’s life experience that they’re bringing into a show, their emotional reaction, and how their hearts and heads are responding at the same time.
We live in an age where the way people consume culture and narrative drama has been changing. In an age of watching TV in our bedrooms and binge watching TV shows, how do you think that affects theatre?
I was talking to Paula Vogel about this recently, actually. She was talking about how binge watching was affecting our notion of time—theatrical and cinematic time—and the idea that we can walk into a theatre and have an attention span for two hours seems foreign to some people who will go home and watch Breaking Bad for ten hours. So what’s the difference between the ten hours at home and the two hours in the theatre? I think binge watching, to me, has an element of masturbation; I find I feel dirty afterwards, like after ten hours with a show. I don’t think it’s bad—I think it’s inevitable. I remember I had the flu once, and I watched Downton Abbey for a week straight during the day, and I felt like I was never going to get out of Downton Abbey and I expected a butler was going to come in and bring me a cup of tea. I think the theatre provides a kind of waking up with others, and I think binge watching is alone and individual and you forget yourself. The theatre, I think, wants to sharpen your senses and wake you up out of that stupor a little bit.
We talk about the American theatre a lot. And American playwrights. We think any definition of that is up for interpretation. Do you feel like an American playwright?
I do. It’s interesting writing plays in America since in a way, you could say, “Does America have any culture at all? Are we a country without culture? Are we a culture with many cultures?” I think we’re a country of many, multivalent cultures, and I think theatre is multivalent and multi-voiced. A multivalent culture is an amazing place to be writing theatre. I think it’s very different than British theatre, where maybe there’s more of a sense of cultural heritage going back to Shakespeare, and more of a sense of continuity. And in America, I think it’s much more full of disruption culturally; it’s much more mysterious how we inherit culture here. We grab it where we can find it—we’re insatiable—and there can be a sense here that it’s not available to you as readily as it is in other cultures.
What other areas of culture do you find evocative? What is your relationship like with art and music?
I used to paint and I used to draw, and I probably would have loved to have been a portrait painter if I’d been good enough, but I really wasn’t good enough. I played the piano. I really wasn’t very good at it. But I studied music and visual art before becoming a playwright. I think one thing about playwriting is that it’s a plastic oral form—I wrote poetry too before I wrote plays—I think with playwriting the world kind of cracked open and incorporated these other art forms that I really loved.
How much do you think about the visuals when you’re writing?
Quite a bit. I mean I see it all. I don’t know how it will be imagined on stage, but I do see it all.
(iv.) New Plays
What’s something you wish was different about new play development?
I think theatres should commission fewer writers at a time and give them more money to live on while they write a play—also, so they don’t have ten commissioned plays that there’s no hope will ever see the light of day on the stage. I think there should be less democracy in the development process—more of a line of sand around the writer’s imagination—and more democracy in the room when you’re actually rehearsing a play. I think theatre is a democratic act and I think writing a play is not a democratic act. I think we should give writers more leeway and space to write the thing they want to write and then we should produce the play, multiple times, and let them re-write it. I think it’s really changing. I think people are starting to hear writers’ concerns, and I see it changing all over the place.
You’ve worked on some plays over a long period of time. When you’re working on something over years, and you’re growing and changing in those years, how does that affect the work?
Passion Play is the longest gestation; I think it took twelve years, start to production. And in a sense, I was a completely different person when it was put on. I think every seven years you shed your skin completely and you have a completely new set of skin. That’s why so many people break up after seven years—you’ve become new people. So what happens when you write a play and seven years later it’s done? It means it’s harder to willow your way back in and rewrite, because you’re accessing a previous self, in a way. I think the play actually teaches you when you can and when you can’t. The play will tell you, “No, you can’t get back in. Just put it up. Be done with me.”
We found an interview where you were asked about directing your own work again. Do you have an interest in that? And do you think that’s something more playwrights should have an interest in?
I think we should all know how to do it. I think in playwriting training programs, we should all have the opportunity to do it. I think we should know what it’s like to work in an unmediated way with actors. I would love to direct, and I’m really too lazy to do it. What I really value about being a writer is that I can go to rehearsal when I want to, and then, when I need to be at home writing or with my kids, I go home. So I can imagine, when my kids are grown up, directing sometimes. Or directing other people’s plays—I think that would be interesting. It’s interesting how Nilo Cruz directed Anna in the Tropics in Florida after its premiere in New York. I think I’d never want to direct my own work in New York because it’s too brutal and too consuming, but I’d be interested in directing my work or other playwrights’ works who I really admire, outside of the city.
Do you find there’s any resistance to the idea of a playwright directing?
Yes. Nobody wants that. They think it’s insane. María Irene Fornés was a brilliant director of her own work, and I think she had a lot of resistance. You look at the film world and it’s just common practice that you write it and direct it.
And the work isn’t suffering from it.
No, it’s getting better.
It’s weird that there’s such a resistance to people having multiple roles in theatre.
It’s a really interesting question. Even the concept of the theatre director hasn’t been around that long. The director was only invented in the nineteenth century. So directors have only been around for 200 years and playwrights have been around since Sophocles and Euripides. So what is it about the nineteenth century that created the need for a director? And why is it the playwrights suddenly seemed like these fragile creatures that were incapable of talking to other human beings? I don’t know. I do think in other countries it’s not as crazy. I think it’s particularly so in America. When I’ve done roundtables with European companies and you go around the room and say, “What do you do?” people will say, “I act, I direct, I design…” They do everything. I think it’s a little bit this American car model—the Ford model—where we realized it was super efficient to have each person get expertise in one area. And it is probably the quickest way to make a car—or a play. And since we have short rehearsal times, you have to be efficient. Now, if we had companies and we were developing work over time, I think people would get more comfortable with people occupying multiple roles.
What are the top five plays you’d want to direct?
1. King Lear
2. The Long Christmas Ride Home by Paula Vogel
3. The Swan by Elizabeth Egloff
4. Blind Mouth Singing by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas
5. The Language Archives by Julia Cho
You have a book of essays, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, which came out recently. It seems like it’s opening up the possibility for a stronger and more intimate relationship between playwright and author. Was that part of it?
I had no rational intention. Really, I wrote the essays as a way of keeping writing while I wasn’t writing a play and while I was taking care of these little babies. If the result was a heightened intimacy, that makes me really happy. I do think there’s a relationship between a book and a reader that’s more intimate, in many ways, than the relationship between an audience member and a play—just by the nature of it being an object that you can have in bed with you and that you can keep and page through, as opposed to at the theatre where there are lights on and people next to you and it’s communal. I love that about the theatre. But, having been someone who grew up on books, it moved me to have the essays piled up into a little book that I could hold.
It seems like someone who reads this book and then goes to see one of your plays would have a different experience at the play than someone who had not read the book.
It might frame a play differently for people who have read the essays. Brecht wrote a lot of essays that positioned his plays in a theoretical framework, but you don’t find out a lot about Brecht in his essays personally, so it’s not repositioned that way. It was important to me to write about motherhood because I feel like it’s an invisible job. It still is, despite all the changes we’re making culturally. It was important to me that people know that you can make plays and raise children at the same time—for other mothers, for other parents, for other women considering having children and who want to be working and thinking and contemplating and making things while they’re raising children.
We’ve heard that people have faced resistance when they want to write about motherhood—that audiences and producers aren’t into it. Is that something you’ve found?
Not at all with Lincoln Center. I’ve yet to find out what the critical reception will be, so who knows. I know Tina Howe feels that her work on motherhood has been ruthlessly misunderstood. I think the more people we have making art about the subject, the more we’ll have those narratives front and center, and the more people will begin to take them in.
We’ve been talking to people about the balance between work and kids, but we also talk about how men are never asked about balancing work and kids—there’s no expectation of it.
It’s interesting because I don’t mind the question, because of this thing about motherhood and invisibility. I feel like, “Yes, ask me about my kids.” It’s a part of my life, and other mothers should know about it. However, how do we get them to ask men the same question? Women are asked about being in relation to and I don’t think that’s bad. We all exist in relation to the world, our partners, the human race, so now, how can we extend that privilege to men? And let’s think of it as a privilege. I think part of it is re-branding it. It’s good to be thought of in relation to our kids, our society, and our culture. How can men be in a position equally of living in relation to the world and not be living in a little tower? It’s not writing in a tower—that’s not how it is for women or men. How can we re-position even the concept of the artist as someone who includes other parts of life and isn’t hermetically sealed in a tower? It’s a privilege to have kids and not live your life in solitude. But we live in a child-hating culture. No one likes kids. We say we do, and we take pictures of pregnant women for People Magazine, but really they’re commodities—we hate them around, we hate them on airplanes, we consider them a grand imposition and almost a style choice. So, no wonder women artists are offended about having to talk about them, because they’re not considered important [by society]. So, for me, I think it’s about pushing them to the center for both men and women, instead of pretending that my mind is an ivory tower that’s above something so mundane as the influence of children. They’re not mundane.
How can theatre better address the issue of balancing work and kids?
I bring my kids to rehearsal. I insist that they’re allowed to be part of the workplace and to not be embarrassed by that. And that they should be at both parents’ rehearsals. But the first step, to me, is that we aren’t so ashamed and embarrassed by our reproductive lives that we can’t even admit to having them.
When was the first moment you felt like a grownup?
I’m writing a play for my mother right now called For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, and I interviewed all of my family members about when they first felt like a grownup as part of the play. When did I first feel like a grownup? Maybe when I first wrote the word “playwright” on my tax return.
What was the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
Probably the stories my father told me before going to sleep at night about when he was little.
Who were your heroes growing up?
Clara Barton. Albert Schweitzer. Martin Luther King. Maud Hart Lovelace, who wrote the Betsy-Tacy books. As I got older, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield.
You’re one of the few people who has named many female writers.
I went on a strike when I was eighteen and refused to read anyone but women writers because I was sick of it. My family laughed at me that I was on strike. I was on strike for just a summer, and then I read men again. When I was a junior in high school, I wrote a paper on female writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I was pretty annoyed about not reading women from a pretty early age.
When you were young, did you have fictional characters that you identified with?
I was a little bit obsessed with this Betsy-Tacy series. It has a female protagonist named Betsy, who’s a writer, and it follows her from six years old to college. I think it was very formative, because this girl really thought of herself as a writer and storyteller from a young age. She tells stories to her friends, who are girls, and then she sends a story out to a magazine when she’s in fourth grade and her women friends re-write the story in good handwriting for her to send it out, and eventually she gets published. Her writerly ambitions aren’t really the focus of the storytelling, but they’re always there. For a young girl seeing that model—that it seemed normal for a girl to send out stories and think of herself as writer—was incredibly formative. I was a member of the Betsy-Tacy Society because the books were out of print. I won the Betsy-Tacy trivia contest in Chicago. I mean I was seriously a Betsy-Tacy zealot. I think I might do an adaptation for The Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis of one of the books.
One of the things we’re trying to do with this site is give people—especially girls—an example of careers and paths they might want to follow.
I think it’s so important. I think meeting Paula Vogel is one of the most important meetings that ever happened to me in my life. Paula taught you not only about writing in the abstract, but she was an example of how to live as a writer in the world. That’s hugely important for someone who wants to be a writer.
How important was it that your role model was a female writer?
Probably hugely. There wasn’t a male playwright stepping forward, so I can’t compare. But hugely important. I think otherwise, you tend to think of writers as ethereal, made of paper, that works just drop down from the heavens and appear—you don’t think of them as made artifacts, and the life that accompanies the book.
As one of the very few contemporary female playwrights who has had a play on Broadway, do you feel extra pressure to succeed?
I don’t read a word that’s written about me. I don’t read my own interviews. I don’t read reviews. I think it would drive me insane. I think you have to have your own expectations of yourself, and your own sense of purpose, and your own intrinsic pleasure in the task. If you don’t, you will drive yourself off a cliff because your fortunes will rise and fall, and if you identify too closely with that, you really will go insane.
Do you think there’s more pressure on women who have broken through to not mess up than there is on men?
I think I see it in both men and women. I look at the careers of Arthur Miller and Horton Foote and Edward Albee, and I can see that they had a time in their life where they were discounted. I also see, in women friends, a really dangerous phenomenon where it seems they reach a certain age and become invisible. I don’t know if that’s gender or if that’s the same thing that Albee and Miller and others went through, where there’s a point where people felt they knew their work and began to discount them.
Why do you think women don’t get produced on Broadway despite being Pulitzer finalists and winners and highly regarded?
There are so many things that can be said about that. Our view of the prototypical playwright is still a man. If you see how a playwright is represented [in media]… like in the Woody Allen movie Bullets Over Broadway, the playwright is a man. In this new play about a play [It’s Only a Play], the playwright a man. What delighted me about Fun Home was seeing at its center a protagonist artist who was a woman. And we’re going to see that more and more. But that idea in our head of a classic Broadway playwright is still a man. It’s like that thing of when you ask little kids if they gender a doctor as a man or a woman. When I was growing up, we gendered a doctor, in our head, as male. That’s no longer the case. I asked my son, who is three, once if he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up because my husband is a doctor and he said, “No, mama, all doctors are women.” I said, “But your dad’s a doctor.” And he said, “He is?” because he’d been to the pediatrician where all the doctors are women. He had no gender conception of a doctor being male. In fifty years, we will have no gender conception of a Broadway playwright being male. We just won’t. It’s changing.
Do you feel like plays by women are talked about differently than if they were by men? Especially plays with non-traditional narrative structures.
Well, I do have an essay in my book about why I hate the words quirky and whimsical. I feel like it’s a code word as a way to dismiss women. For a male writer, the words would be original and groundbreaking—it wouldn’t be whimsical or quirky. I also think the word muscular is now being used as a code word when people like women’s work—it’s muscular and manly and it’s not feminine and soft. I do think we use coded gendered language to talk about writing.
How much do you think the physical spaces and the way we produce theatre are geared towards plays with linear structures?
I have an essay in the book about how I was laughing so hard when a male student was describing his structure and he said, “I start out and I’m going and going and going and then bam and then it’s over.” And I was like, “Okay, you’ve just described the male orgasm. Hilarious.” And sometimes when women are describing structure they’re like, “And then this happens and then this happens…” It’s more diffuse. It’s more like the multiple orgasm structure. I would never be essentialist about sexuality and structure, but I do think there’s a way in which this male-arc has been talked about as the only structure, and kind of a stand-in for even the word structure, instead of looking at other forms. And, in terms of architecture, there are so many ways to structure a building—how does a building stand up? It’s not just a Greek building that stands. We know that Frank Gehry can make a building stand up. So plays are architecture, and you can make them stand in many ways that are hard to describe. And, I think, in our limited ability to describe them, we’ve substituted our inarticulateness for saying that there’s one and only one structure.
Do you find that part of the issue might be educating audiences in a way we haven’t been doing?
Maybe. Or maybe we should stop educating them. Just let them have fun. Let them think of this as a pleasurable activity like the movies. Let them buy their tickets and enjoy themselves.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
For me, the no brainer is be sure you read women’s work. Make sure it’s getting in front of the artistic director. When I read a diverse amount of work, the diverse, wonderful pieces rise to the top quite naturally. So getting the work read seems incredibly important because the work is good enough; it doesn’t need anything outside of itself to trumpet it as excellent. If they are reading it, they’ll know. I think the Lilly’s are making an impact. The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize is making an impact—it’s like the female Pulitzer since every year, often, the winner of the Blackburn goes on to be shortlisted for the Pulitzer. It’s like reading an alternative canon. I think giving a hand to younger women writers if you’re an established writer—saying, “This is how I make a life in a theatre”—something as simple as that. Just sitting down with younger women writers and saying, “This is what I do, and you can do this,” is hugely important.